The Last Male Northern White Rhino Is Dead, but the Subspecies Could Still Survive

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No one can say Sudan, a northern white rhino, didn’t live a full life. He was the subject of countless works of art. Famous actresses and heads of state traveled across the globe to meet him. He even had his own Tinder profile.

But Sudan’s death this week, at the ripe old age of 45, is tragic for another reason: He was the last living male of his subspecies.

When Sudan was born, in 1973, researchers believe he was one of about 500 northern white rhinos. By the mid-80s, poaching slashed that number to about 30. After a slight recovery around the start of the twenty-first century, the population soon dwindled further, down to just eight in 2007, and then three in 2015.

In 2009, his caretakers moved him from the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, in the hope that an environment more like his natural habitat would prompt Sudan to breed. In his last days, Sudan suffered from age-related health conditions. So on, March 19, veterinarians made the difficult decision to euthanize him.

Sudan leaves behind two female family members: daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. Neither is healthy enough to carry a birth to term. And they are now the last living northern white rhinos on Earth.

A subspecies reduced to two female rhinos doesn’t bode well for its continued survival.

But all hope isn’t lost. Researchers saved the sperm from Sudan, and from four other male northern white rhinos before they died. And they think they might be able to produce a calf via in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Here’s the plan. First, the researchers would fertilize one of the female rhino’s eggs with the  frozen sperm. The team could then use a female of a closely related species, the southern white rhino, as a surrogate.

Najin and Fatu have a limited number of eggs, so that might not work. But there are other options for saving the species. Scientists could potentially transform northern white rhino skin cells into stem cells. After that, they could coax those stem cells into eggs. They’d then fertilize those the same way they would if they came from Najin and Fatu.

Since the last two remaining northern white rhinos are closely related, we’d need some way to diversify the subspecies if we did hope to regenerate the population. The stem cell option would help with that, as scientists could transform any samples from any of the deceased rhinos into eggs or sperm.

Of course, all of this would be very expensive, in the $ 800,000 to $ 10 million range per cycle.

Some conservationists argue we’d be better off spending that money elsewhere. We’re in the midst of a mass extinction in which dozens of species go extinct every day. What makes the northern white rhino so special that we bring it back from extinction?

Some scientists think Earth has a “boundary for biodiversity.” Genetic diversity helps the planet cope with change, they claim. Too few species, and the Earth loses this ability. Ultimately, biodiversity loss could jeopardize humanity’s “safe operating space” on Earth, Johan Rockström, the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told The Guardian.

Other researchers think the idea of a biodiversity boundary is nonsense. They argue that species loss is more of a slow burn, degrading ecosystems over time.

So, on one hand, the extinction of the northern white rhino could put us one step closer to a “tipping point” of sorts that leads to the end of humanity. On the other, it could contribute to the planet’s ecological death by a thousand cuts.

Neither option sounds great. But if charismatic species like the northern white rhino result in real action, perhaps we’ll never have to find out which is right.

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With IVF, the Northern White Rhino May Not Go Extinct

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A Family of Three

In Kenya, the world’s last male northern white rhino continues to battle health problems. The fate of the species rests on this rhino, Sudan, and his two surviving family members, daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. Now, an international collaboration of scientists and conservationists is looking for ways to prevent the extinction of the species using in vitro fertilization (IVF).

The rhinos cannot reproduce naturally as Sudan has been infertile for years. This collaborative effort, which includes experts from the San Diego Zoo Global, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and South African company Embryo Plus, hopes to combine semen collected from dead northern white rhinos while they were still alive with the eggs of the last two surviving female rhinos to continue the species.

A female of a different subspecies, the southern white rhino, would serve as a surrogate mother to carry the child as both Najia and Fatu have physical ailments preventing them from carrying a pregnancy.

Animals That Went Extinct In The 21st Century [Infographic]
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Because of his infertility, Sudan’s death wouldn’t prevent the recovery of the northern white rhino species, Richard Vigne, CEO of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy where Sudan lives, told The Associated Press.

However, in vitro fertilization with the species will be difficult and could fail, so it is of the utmost importance that Najin and Fatu survive at least “until such time when the protocol or technique for in vitro fertilization has been perfected so that we can begin that process,” Vigne said.

In 2016, a cape buffalo gave birth to a calf conceived via IVF for the first time, and the technique is routinely used in the cattle industry. However, with limited genetic material, the stakes for the northern white rhino are higher. If the IVF fails, conservationists could be out of options.

Split Opinions

Those who support the northern white rhino IVF plan hope it could be used with other endangered species. However, some conservationists think researchers should focus on saving species that are critically endangered due to poaching and humans moving into their native habitats.

Some groups, such at the London-based Save the Rhino, think the northern white rhino subspecies is too endangered to save.

“With small chance of healthy new calves, and limited place in their historic range to go, Save the Rhino believes that the best outcome will be to put our efforts and funding – including research into IVF – into saving the species which do still have a chance,” according to the group’s website.

Jo Shaw, an African rhino expert with the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) conservation group, echoed those concerns.

“The real fight for the survival of northern white rhinos in their natural habitat was lost over a decade ago,” she told The Associated Press. “Large mammals, like rhinos, should be seen as symbols of large functioning ecosystems, and we must focus our efforts and energy on their protection and ongoing survival within these vital landscapes around the globe.”

Those sentiments do not mean that continuing the northern white rhino species through IVF is impossible. Researchers just face an uphill battle due to the shortage of genetic material and high risk of failure.

Though it’s heavily poached and still considered a threatened species, the southern white rhino species survived near-extinction in the 19th century. Perhaps future conservation efforts will focus more heavily on prevention and protection, but it is still possible to save the northern white rhino.

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Synthetic Rhino Horns Are Being Created to Flood Markets and Eradicate Poaching

Cheating the Black Market

Since 2007, instances of rhino poaching in South Africa have increased by 9,000 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The non-profit conservation group Save the Rhino estimates that 1,054 of the animals were illegally killed in 2016. To battle this horrifying trend, biotech startup Pembient hopes to undermine black market sales by creating synthetic rhino horns that are practically indistinguishable from real horns, down to the molecular level.

Image credit: Eric Kilby/Flickr
Image credit: Eric Kilby/Flickr

Pembient CEO and co-founder Matthew Markus thinks flooding the market with these synthetic rhino horns will be more effective than simply trying to stop rhino poaching.

“If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset,” he told Business Insider. “And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.” He hopes that by increasing the overall supply of horns, his company’s synthetic horns will lower the incentive for poachers to kill rhinos for real ones.

Unintended Effect

In part, rhino horns are popular thanks to their perceived medical benefits. Practitioners of traditional Asian medicine use powdered rhino horn for everything from hangover cures to cancer treatments. However, rhino horns are composed primarily of keratin, the same substance that makes up the hair on your head. A tea made from the clippings found on the floor of your local barbershop likely has the same healing properties as one of these horns.

Despite the lack of evidence that rhino horns live up to the medicinal hype, however, they are still in demand, and while conservation groups acknowledge Pembient’s good intentions, some fear the startup’s plans to produce synthetic rhino horns may inadvertently drive up the price of genuine rhino horns, making them even more desirable as a luxury item.

“On paper, the idea of flooding the market with ‘easy access’ horns in order to reduce demand is a good one,” Sophie Stafford, Communications Manager for Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB), told Futurism. Unfortunately, it may not work so well in practice.

“While it may well have a short-term impact on a proportion of the consuming public, we know that discerning buyers in China and Vietnam are having rhino horn DNA tested,” said Stafford. “There will always be some people who will buy untested products, but demand for the ‘genuine article’ will drive up the price of authentic rhino horn.”

Furthermore, Stafford said the market is just too large: “Even if just one percent of the human population of east Asia wants real rhino horn and can afford it, that’s still more than 10 million people consuming rhino horn. That’s enough to drive rhinos to extinction.”

The dire circumstances of rhino conservation have led to solutions with serious ethical complications — some conservationists have even taken to poisoning rhino horns to make any humans who ingest the horns sick.

Even if such a drastic solution was effective, it would only deter the portion of the illegal market using the horns in medicine. It would do nothing to quell the continued sale of rhino horns for use as status symbols, either displayed whole or made into ornate artifacts and jewelry.

Conservationists are embracing the advent of new technologies to help them more effectively preserve these at-risk animals. Some are embedding rhino horns with cameras and GPS implants to deter or catch poachers. A more lofty venture will place robotic rhinos within herds to protect the population.

Any potentially helpful technologies that make it easier to protect rhinos from poachers should be considered. Still, conservationists will also want to make sure that any proposed changes do not have unintended consequences that will embolden these deplorable markets.

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